Monday, December 5, 2011

St Jude Memphis Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 6; 43rd Edition 
670  miles raced, 7480 meters swam and 202.3 miles biked in 2011
Race: St Jude Memphis Marathon
Place: Memphis, TN
Miles from home:  1519 miles
Weather: 40-50s; sunny, windy

In my third marathon ever, the Marine Corps Marathon, I ran as a St Jude Hero, having raised the requisite amount of money required to run for the organization as a charity runner.  In fact, the race was so challenging for me, if I had not been wearing the red singlet with the St Jude name on the front, I am unsure whether I would have finished. Heat exhaustion had taken over well short of the 26.2 mile mark and just the desire to show that what I was dealing with was nothing compared to what the children had to handle on a daily basis kept me moving forward. When I finished, I was a dreaded mess and remember vividly thinking I would never attempt another marathon again. Obviously, that did not stick.

As I near the end of one of my many running goals, it is no coincidence that Tennessee would be the 46th state I had run a marathon in. You see, I had been saving this particular state for the official St Jude Marathon held in Memphis every year. Finally, this year my schedule abated and I was not only able to run the race but along with Hal Higdon and a few other speakers, kick-started the first every speakers bureau that the St. Jude Marathon has had. This was a fantastic honor for me.

Working with the Tennessee Beef Council, I was also at the expo in my penultimate appearance of the year as the spokesrunner for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Combining what I love to do (run) with what I love to eat (beef) and doing my first ever race in Tennessee in a race I had ached to do for years was the perfect trifecta. Seeing many friends who I had not seen in ages, along with meeting many people who I had talked with for quite some time but never actually met made it all even better.

Race morning:

Staying just a few blocks from the start of the race allowed me to do my usual late awakening, early morning shuffle to the start.  I saw once I got to the minor league ballpark which served as the finish for the race and also a staging area for runner prior to it beginning, that there were hotels even closer. Precious more minutes of sleep before (and steps back to the hotel after) the race could definitely be saved if one books in advance soon enough.

I was invited as the guest of Kevin Leathers, host of the radio show Pace Per Mile and coach of Can’t Stop Endurance located in Memphis (who is also tackling the Leadville 100 next year - yikes!), to relax in one of the suites in the upper level of the stadium. I popped in for just a few minutes as I had left just enough time to walk to the start before it began. Inside many of Kevin’s athletes were getting their game faces on. The energy before a race like this is palpable. One woman said “I don’t know why I am so nervous this morning!”  I told her “Because, up until today, you could quit. Now, you have to run.”

I meandered down toward the start, saying hello to a few elite running friends who would be given a minute head start in front of us mere mortals and soaked in the moment. A few weeks ago I did not know if I would be able to even run here. My Achilles tendon had been so messed up the previous month that walking alone had been painful. While far from “healed” the sore tendon was exceedingly better now and nothing more than an afterthought. My achy left foot and the lingering cold I could not shake from the last two weeks were all that were really bothering me. In the grand scheme of things, that is not too bad.

Sixty seconds after the speedsters streaked down Fourth Street, we were off.

First 6 miles: 6:45, 6:46, 6:56, 6:58, 6:45, 7:03

Within the first few hundred yards, I found myself running next to a runner whom I met in Wichita last year.  His name was Scott Hill and for whatever reason, he was sporting a hilarious running costume. Having groomed quite the mustache, he was also decked out in tight shorts, a USA singlet, aviator sunglasses and some old school kicks. He was either an elite runner from the 70s or a registered sex offender. Either way, it was awesome. Scott had run a PR marathon the day I met him at the Prairie Fire marathon and had since concentrated on running ultras. After the first mile or so at a pace that would have put him right on pace for a new PR he said he was not in shape for what he wanted and  he was pretty sure he would croak later if he kept it up.

Over the next few miles I felt into a nice groove and Scott went a few yards in front of me. As we snaked through downtown Memphis, I was pleased to feel fairly good running under the desired goal pace for the day. Hoping to add another sub-3 to my year and bookend the year with marathons beginning with “2”, I knew that I had my work cut out for me.

The biggest thrill of the whole race is when we all go through the St Jude campus. Talk about goose bumps.  With kids out cheering you on, and a plethora of other fans in the area with signs reminding you what this particular race it all about, it is impossible not to get choked up.  My only complaint is that we just run through this area once and do it so early in the race.  If we could somehow sneak back in here around mile 20 it would be the epitome of excitement and quite a boost to tired legs.

As I came up on the 6th mile I began running with a guy named Phil.  Phil himself has a relative who had spent some time in St Jude so this race meant even more to him than most. We began to chat.

To the Half: 7:03, 7:06, 6:43, 6:56, 6:48, 6:54, 7:24

Over the next few miles, Phil and I shared stories and enjoyed each other’s company.  The downside of that, however, was that I sort of dropped off of my pace a bit.  One of the great things about running is finding someone to talk to as you pass through the miles. The downside is that you may use a little too much energy yapping and if you happen to have different paces, at one point someone has to decide to stop talking and simply run. For me, as we left Acton Park and got a small downhill, I zipped my lip and opened up a small gap on Phil. I wanted to get into my sub-3 groove again and see if that was possible.

For the next few miles I was motivated by a guy who would run right behind me, with his music blasting very loudly.  Since *I* could sing along with what was playing, I cannot imagine how loud it actually was for him. I could tell by his bib color that he was running the half and I wanted to see if I could keep in front of him until we split apart shortly after mile 12.

I was able to put a sizeable lead on him when I finally saw what I had been aching for all morning – a bathroom.  I slipped in and out of curiosity timed myself.  From when I left the course to when I started running again was a mere 24 seconds.  That is undoubtedly one of the big perks of being a male runner.

However, during that time, Mr. Loud Music had caught up to me again. Fortunately there were only a few more blocks to go before we split. I fought the urge to run by him before we split so he knew I was running the marathon.  Sort of a “So there!” moment.

With more than a few hills to contend with (one running friend called it the hilliest marathon she had ever run and I retorted she must have run some pretty flat marathons) the first half had offered some challenges but I knew the second half would probably be more difficult. Fortunately, I hit the half almost exactly on pace (just half a minute off) and felt great.

Onto Mile 20: 6:41, 7:10, 7:15, 7:23, 7:15, 7:15, 7:14

Heading back up famous Beale Street, which we had run down already, I noticed the crowds cheering us had already thinned. One of the drawbacks of having a race which has a well-attended half-marathon is that many of the spectators withdraw from certain points the halfers will not be running on again. That said, there were still many voices (and Elvis impersonators) on-hand to help get us up the hill.

At one point I had two runners on my right and just ever so slightly ahead of me.  We were coming up to a left-hand turn and I could see they were going to squeeze me ever so much. Rather than slow my pace or risk tripping all of us, I decided to simply slip inside one of the cones on the course and make the turn in front of the barrel marking where we turned. However, as soon as I did, an extremely overzealous course marshal jumped out directly in front of me, arms stretched wide and yelled “NO!”

With her being about 5’3 and 100 pounds and me being 6’1’’, 180 lbs and moving, you can guess who unfortunately lost that battle. Having zero time to react or slow, I plowed right into her.  Somehow, my reflexes allowed me to catch her and I did this odd little wide-legged hop cradling her against my chest. I couldn’t believe she had just thrown herself in front of me like that.  Luckily, no one was harmed but as I resumed running again I was definitely thrown off of my mental mindset.

The next few miles were not only uphill but were done with I can only call a pang of guilt. I would have never intentionally run right into the woman but had been given no choice.  As the course got lonelier and less scenic (another non-surprise) I had less to distract myself from my inner thoughts. One runner caught me and brought it all back to the forefront of my mind again by saying “What the hell was that?!”  Obviously he had not been too far behind me when the incident with the course marshal occurred and had been just as shocked as I was. This was hardly getting hit by a club by some random straggler on the course but in a marathon, where so much is mental, little things can and do throw you.

Around the 18th mile a group of men running in conga line flew by.  Lead by the 3:05 pacer I was surprised to see them.  I personally was still on a 3:03 pace and if they started behind me, lord knows what pace they were on.  I tried to stay with them for a bit but did not have the energy in me.  I soon had to let them go.

Heading home: 7:19, 7:23, 7:22, 7:13, 7:14, 7:36, 1:30

According to the elevation, from mile 19 on, the course gently slopes to the finish.  However, having talked to a runner who had done he race a few times, he told me that don’t expect any downhill until after mile 21. It ends up he was pretty darn correct.  Fortunately, I knew that in advance of hitting that mile so I was not extremely let down.

Right before I finally did get to mile 21 and the promised downhill, Phil caught back up to me.  He was looking solid and refreshed. We ran together for a few hundred yards until I realized he had more in him than I.  However, we both had more in us than many of the runners out there.  With Phil more than a few meters ahead and leading the way, we both began to pass the few runners still in front of us. One runner, wearing the brightest of orange, had been a target all day long for me and I am sure for many others as well.  As he faltered, I used his beacon of a singlet like a homing device. Suddenly, I was feeling better than I had for miles. I passed him and knew I would not see him again.

At one point we were running on the opposite side of a split boulevard from where we had been earlier in the race. At mile 22 myself, looking over at those who were just now getting to mile 8, I felt an enormous amount of both inspiration and pity. Bless those souls out there giving their best but there is no way in heck I would want to only be 8 miles in at over two hours and thirty minutes of movement.

Something about this difference in place along the course sparked me and while I hardly lit a jet engine under myself, in comparison to those I was passing, I might as well have been riding a rocket. I repassed Phil at mile 24 and began to realize that I could possibly still get a 3:05. Ironically, the 3:05 group was not even within 2 minutes of my sight line. I can only hope that they had a discussion amongst themselves and decided to blow it out fast because of the runners I was passing now, many had been in that group. If that had been relying on adequate pacing, they did not seem to be getting it.

A lonely, lonely stretch of highway separated me from completing my 138th marathon. Churning forward I knew I had around half of a mile to go when we started up an off-ramp.  Hardly Mt. Everest but at this point in the game it was crippling. Then came the 180 degree turn to go even further up another ramp.  Ooof. I knew I simply didn’t have the juice to get the 3:05.  And honestly, why care?  This was my third marathon in 14 days, two which I had been sick for and the third I had been beyond nervous for.  I had nothing to prove and was nowhere near close to a PR.  So, I simply used that last few hundred yards, as I ran into the ballpark and the sun baked my skin, to reflect on what a year it had been. 

Finishing in a 3:06:16, I was the 30th overall runner to cross the line. Even though this had not felt like the best year for marathons for me, I found out later that this was far and away the fastest overall average I had had for a year of marathons since all the way back in 2008. Even with the horrendous jog I slogged through at the marathon in Rhode Island, with me constantly fearing my Achilles would snap, I had been able to persevere and get faster.

And with that, my marathons are done for 2011. I have at least one more race to go, starting with next week’s half marathon in Kiawah Island, but I am extremely pleased with how this year has gone. Moreover, I finally got to Tennessee to run to support the kids who had helped me, mentally at least, get through a marathon I wanted to quit.

I still owe them.

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